On April 9, 1959, the year-old National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) held a press conference to introduce the first ever American astronauts to the world. The seven military test pilots chosen to make up “The Mercury 7” sat lined at a table in the ballroom of the first NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., as press and public looked on. Although the introduction of astronauts into American culture was historic in itself, the building in which it took place carried a legacy that predated NASA by nearly 140 years. Namely, the building that NASA acquired as its first residence in the District was the longtime home of the lively and revered first lady, Dolley Madison.
When Neil Armstrong announced that man had successfully landed on the moon’s surface July 20, 1969, he addressed his message to mission control, based at the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. While Armstrong’s first word may have been “Houston,” those at mission control in Texas were not actually the first ones to hear this historic message from space. Rather, the first people to hear of man landing on the moon, were NASA personnel at the Goddard Space Center, just 12 miles from D.C. in Greenbelt, Maryland. Goddard served as the main control center for receiving and directing signals and information between the manned Apollo 11 spacecraft and mission control in Houston. In fact, much of the technical success and amazement surrounding the Apollo 11 moon landing was thanks to the hard work of the scientists and engineers in Greenbelt.
Approximately 530 million Americans across the country, including those in the White House, sat glued to their television sets on the evening of July 20, 1969, watching as Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. It may have been President John F. Kennedy who jumpstarted the space program in 1961, but it was Richard Nixon sitting in the Oval Office the day that JFK’s promise of putting a man on the moon became a reality. It was also Nixon who would mark the occasion by making the longest distance phone call in history that night, as he picked up the Oval Office phone and dialed Space.